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Experts Debate Food Labeling, Best Diet Approaches

Posted - Jan. 20, 2004 at 1:20 p.m.



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From bread to frozen dinners, food labels are promising dieters products that are low in carbohydrates. There's just one hitch: Nobody can say with certainty what that means.

There is no official definition of low-carb, as there are for label claims such as low-fat and low-sodium. Instead of claiming to be low-carb, most packages advertise net carbs, effective carbs, fit carbs or a ``low-carb lifestyle.'' The meaning of those terms varies among food manufacturers.

``The consumer is confused,'' says Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford.

In February the FDA is likely to define ``low-carbohydrate'' as part of its efforts to combat obesity. But coming up with a standard may not be as straightforward as it sounds. Any proposal could take months to implement.

What's at issue is how carbohydrates affect blood sugar, and whether all carbohydrates should be lumped together. Low-carb diets such as Atkins are based on the principle that weight loss is achieved by metabolic processes that kick in only when carbohydrate intake falls below a certain level.

Nutrition labels now list total carbohydrates. Some food manufacturers have started subtracting carbs from fiber and sugar alcohols - which they contend don't cause a rapid spike in blood sugar - from the total carb count. The lower ``net carbs'' are listed on the front of packages.

The difference can be substantial. An Atkins Nutritionals' Cookies 'n' Creme Advantage Bar, for example, contains 22 grams of total carbs and 220 calories. A label on the front lists just 2 grams of net carbs. For consumers following strict low-carb regimens, which may recommend as little as 30 grams daily, that equation means the freedom to indulge.

For manufacturers, it means a lucrative new market. Just in the past week, reduced-carbohydrate versions of Ragu pasta sauce, Frito-Lay chips and Skippy peanut butter have been announced, and Burger King and Chili's have rolled out low-carb menus. Hundreds of low-carb products were introduced last year.

Nutritionists worry that dieters will look at carb counts and ignore calories, which can add up.

This is a relatively new concept that manufacturers are coming up with to be on the bandwagon and increase their sales for people following Atkins-type diets, and I think it's bogus,'' says Chris Rosenbloom, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University.It reminds me so much of the low-fat stuff 15, 20 years ago, when all people did was count fat grams and wondered why they still gained weight. I think the same thing could happen here.''

Atkins Nutritionals pioneered the net carb term and has rolled out more than 100 food products. More are planned.

We are interested in truthful and accurate labels,'' says Matt Spolar, vice president of product development for Atkins Nutritionals.I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who are taking a more liberal approach.''

Many manufacturers, like Atkins, list just net carbs on a package front. Kraft Foods lists calories along with carb counts.

If people are managing their carbohydrate intake, or even their fat intake, for weight management purposes, (it's) to make sure they're also looking at calories,'' says Kraft spokeswoman Sarah Delea.Calories play an important role in weight management.''

The debate over how to label, as well as what counts as a carb, has roiled manufacturers. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group, plans to petition the FDA this week to set a standard that would make it easier to compare lower-carb products.

``There's some confusion about which sugars count as carbs,'' says Mike Diegel, an association spokesman.

The American Diabetes Association advises checking labels for total calories and total carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols cause a slower rise in blood glucose, the organization says, but still contain nearly as many calories as sugars like fructose. It also counsels that the total amount of carbs matters more than the source of the carbs.

Donna Halverson has been checking labels for carbohydrate counts since her daughter, now 11, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes while a kindergartner. Now she's also shopping for products to fit into her husband Mark's low-carb diet. Because tracking carbohydrates is so crucial for her daughter Halverson prefers to look at total counts rather than net figures.

``I guess I'm a little skeptical that taking out those others would really reduce the effect on your body,'' Halverson says.

What is a carbohydrate?

At its most basic, a carbohydrate is a nutrient made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Along with fat and protein, it's one of the three building blocks of the diet.

How the body uses carbohydrates is a matter of debate. Some nutritionists contend that a carbohydrate is a carbohydrate, supplying energy and calories. Others say there is a difference between carbohydrates from sugar alcohols and fiber, claiming they don't trigger spikes in blood sugar like carbs from sugar and refined grains such as white rice.

Our polling of the experts doesn't leave us with a clear path,'' says Crawford, the FDA deputy commissioner.There are experts of the very highest quality who claim there is no difference in carbohydrates . . . and the way the body treats them is the same. There are others who claim there are exquisite differences between various carbohydrates, especially the sugar alcohols.''

The FDA's obesity working group has held a series of public meetings and consulted scientists, the food industry, restaurants, consumers and academics to come up with solutions for the nation's growing weight problem.

The report, which will present the agency's thinking on carbohydrates as well as fats and proteins, will offer recommendations. If the agency receives a petition asking it to clarify low-carb claims, that might speed a ruling, an FDA spokeswoman says.

Adding to the problem is that mainstream nutritionists and weight loss experts still consider a low-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet as the most healthy and effective. Government nutritional advice, including the food pyramid, is built around a diet high in carbohydrates.

The National Academy of Sciences recommends that adults get 45 percent to 65 percent of their calories from carbs, with a minimum of 130 grams of carbs a day to produce enough glucose for normal brain function.

Yet diets like Atkins and South Beach recommend cutting carbs as the best path to weight loss, and they've attracted millions of followers. A handful of small studies released in 2003 report that low-carb diets may be more effective for short-term weight loss than low-fat ones, while lessening some risk factors for heart disease. Differences in weight loss evened out after a year.

`Norm for consumers to look at'

Even Weight Watchers International, which recently started a public relations campaign against low-carb diets, has approved listing total carbohydrates on the front of its Smart Ones frozen dinners, made by H.J. Heinz Co.

It's becoming the norm for consumers to look at,'' says Weight Watchers spokeswoman Linda Webb Carilli.Heinz thought they needed to have it on there because consumers are comparing.''

Nestle's Lean Cuisine, known for its low-fat, lower-sodium entrees, added a lower-carb line this month. The first run of packages listed total carbs, as high as 25 grams, on the front. Within a month, new packages will list net carbs instead, says spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn.

Consumers are looking for that particular terminology,'' O'Hearn says.We're trying to make it helpful information for those who are following particular diet plans, and if net carbs are something they've been trained to look for, we wanted to provide them with something pertinent.''

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(The Cox web site is at http://www.coxnews.com )

c.2004 Cox News Service

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